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Dear Rachel,

I am recently married and last week was my birthday. My husband had asked me a few weeks before my birthday what I wanted. Not really needing anything in particular, I smiled and said "nothing" telling him that being married to him was all I wanted. I was trying to be sweet and was hoping he would surprise me with something. We had also just been out shopping and I commented on how much I liked a certain pair of earrings and how much I would love a particular outfit, etc. Well, little did I know he would take my answer literally and buy me absolutely NOTHING for my birthday! I am so hurt and he doesn't understand why. I mean, if he really loves me, wouldn't he want to buy me something, even if I say I want nothing?

, WA

Dear Presentless,

A while back there was a great email that was sent around called "The Guy's Rules." It was written from the male perspective and had a long list of rules for women to understand about men. One of the rules read, "Subtle hints do not work. Strong hints do not work. Obvious hints do not work. Just say it!"

From what you describe, it doesn't appear that your husband doesn't love you or doesn't want to make you happy, rather, it sounds like he was getting you what he thought you wanted…nothing.

Very often we mistakenly believe that if someone loves us, he should know what we want! Unless you have a crystal ball somewhere in your bedroom, that is simply not the case. Love and mind reading abilities are not synonymous.

Granted, it is not nearly as pleasurable to have to ask for something you want as it is to be surprised with it… but ultimately, it is a lot better to ask for something and receive it than not to ask and be upset when you don't.

In Chassidic philosophy there is the property of netzach which loosely is translated as "victory." When it comes to communication, this level is explained as that of "giving direction." Meaning, if you want to be successful in your relationship, if you ultimately want to be victorious, there is a time and place when you must be clear and give direction in order to receive what is important to you.

I think it is vital that you communicate your feelings with your husband, but recognize that he is really not to blame. I would let him know that you had told him that you didn't want anything for your birthday, but in truth you really did want something and just didn't want to ask for a present. Chances are that while you thought you were being extremely obvious in pointing out those earrings and other things you would love, he likely thought you were making mere comments and by no means recognized that you were hinting that he should buy those things for you. Remember the rule, hints don't work!

I am sure that he did not mean to hurt you and would be more than happy to buy you a gift, he just really may not have known what you wanted. It is not uncommon for men to hesitate about making purchases when they are unsure if you will like it, especially if you have a specific taste. My husband has no problem taking me shopping and having me pick out what I like, but if he goes to a store himself, he will spend hours looking at endless choices and feel completely overwhelmed. He would rather know he bought me something I really want than buy something he chooses and then risk me not liking it or feeling obligated to wear it.

You are recently married. Your husband simply needs to learn more about what you like and especially if you like to be surprised. But make it easy for him, point out things you would like and tell him, "If you ever want to surprise me with a gift, here is an excellent choice." Hopefully, with time you may forget you pointed that out and if he does buy it you truly will be surprised.

So stop being hurt at your husband and communicate with him. Then make some time to go shopping and together, buy yourself the birthday gift you really want. Hopefully by your next birthday, he will be more clued in and have an array of "surprises" in mind, and you will have learned to never say "nothing" unless you mean it!


"Dear Rachel" is a bi-weekly column that is answered by a rotating group of experts. This question was answered by Sara Esther Crispe.

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the Co-Director of Interinclusion, a non-profit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of and wrote the popular weekly blog, Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.
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Gift less March 3, 2015

Same thing happened to me today and I m crying 😔 Reply

Anonymous August 1, 2014

The fact that he did give you what you wanted, which was him, says he may have thought that was very sweet of you to just want him and not bother with material things....but then you were hurt by do you think your husband now feels knowing that material gifts please you more than his presence does?

The advice given above is sound, it is always better to say exactly what you mean, rather than thinking you should leave people guessing. Reply

Anonymous Arkansas October 5, 2013

Material Gifts My husband every year will ask me what do I want, but honestly on my birthday I could care less about material gifts. I am given the best gifts of all every single day. I wake up, I get to spend time with my family and I get to take care of all of those that I love. I may have to remind him every year that I honestly don't want something, but I know for a fact that my husband is no where close to being a mind-reader. He was taught to show his love by material gifts and the older I get and the more I get to experience in life I just am thankful that I get another chance at being another year older. Reply

Ammi TN July 16, 2013

Instead of saying "nothing", just say "surprise me"! And appreciate it whatever it is. Maybe you can add in a clause that says: if I don't like it, don't be upset if I choose to return it! (I say that from experience!!) Reply

Claire Ft lauderdale, Florida July 20, 2011

Expectation Being Married for 13 years has taught me a major lesson. My husband does the same thing and he has been since we got married. Months before my birthday he began asking me what I want, I would tell him if I had a specific thing in mind, although a few times I had no clue as to what I wanted. When my birthday rolled around I felt hurt and uncared for (sadly,I admit I spent many birthdays crying) even though I really did not doubt his love. I realized I expected something from him regardless of what I said.

That's when a wonderful woman gave me a tip....expectation is the root of disappointment!
It so true!
Don't expect anything and watch as your husbands tiny actions seem so loving.
Hope you have many wonderful and happy birthdays ahead! Reply

Shona Jefferson City February 7, 2011

his presence is present enough When we first got married, my husband and I were quite poor. So when my birthday came around, I told him I wanted nothing more than his presence and that would be present enough. He obliged...however we shared the most wonderful romantic evening walk in the snow, holding hands and talking about our hopes and dreams for the future (my idea). 20+ years later our finances are very sound, and we still do not give each other materialistic gifts. But we do still spend our special days together like when we were young...going for romantic walks, holding hands and talking of the future, but now also fondly reminiscing the past. Our time here on earth is so short as it is, and it would be unimaginable for me to think of having to trade just one of those "presentless" birthdays with my love for even a hundred birthdays with pretty baubles wrapped up in a bow. Reply

Anonymous Santa Barbara via January 29, 2011

communication about a present In my humble experience, if you start early in a marriage with saying you want nothing and he gives you nothing, this is a sign of trouble to come. You should not say "nothing," but say "I will be pleased with whatever you buy me, because it will be from you." That tells him that you do want something, but don't have anything in particular in mind. If you start saying "nothing" when you mean "something" and he starts taking you literally, you are both playing mind games that will only lead to more pain later on. You, too! When you say the opposite of what you mean, you are laying a trap, and then you are blaming him for falling into it. How I know this is because I've done the same thing, with the same sad results. Now we take each other shopping and pick out our own presents. Although neither of us is surprised, it gives us each pleasure to buy something for the other one. And, really, there are so very many other things that one could get upset about, that this is a very minor issue. Reply

Lisa Providence, RI January 1, 2011

Presentless You should have told your husband that even though you thought you didn't want anything, you did find something you really wanted.

People are NOT mind readers, and you should have told your husband straight out what you wanted. Reply

Mrs. Leslie Anne MacNeil September 11, 2009

Don't take it literally I always say 'nothing' when my husband asks me what I want for my birthday, but I don't mean that I literally don't want anything, I mean I want nothing in particular. Just because we don't tell men specifically what we want does not give them an excuse not to get us anything. After all, I think up presents for my husband's birthday all by myself. Reply

irene August 28, 2008

forgetting a present i am sorry but a grown man should now that "nothing" doesn't really mean "nothing". We shouldn't say "oh,its ok, their brains are wired differently". its not ok, its hurtful and i perfectly understand why the woman is upset. That being said, unless there have been previous missteps by husband in the past, this is nothing to worry about as long as he is confronted with how she feels. Reply

Rachel Garber Phila , PA USA February 18, 2008

You expected your husband to read your mind Sorry, that's not fair, even if you were trying to be nice. And isn't that kind of dishonest, to say something because you want to be "nice", so you weren't really being nice after all were you? Sorry to come down so hard on you, but you told him being married to him was enough, then you became upset because he didn't buy you anything. Read the message from PJ Mitchell and the above posted by anonymous, you have to tell him what you want. And next year, don't play that "being married to you" game if you really expect a git, it's unfair to him, and to you. Perhaps, if you had told him when the two of you were out shopping, "you know I changed my mind, will you buy me these...?" Give the guy a break, and get your marriage off on the right foot with honesty, not coyness. Reply

PJ Mitchell London, UK February 7, 2008

Learning Hi Ladies

(I know I shouldn't really be on this part of the website, but I find it fascinating). I have to agree, us men just 'don't do hints'. One of the most enjoyable times I've been shopping for a lady was when one of my collegues asked me to get some stuff for her, and showed me the packaging. It made shopping so much easier, cause I didn't spend hours trying to find what she wanted, cause I would have been looking straight at the things she was wanted, and yet return to tell her that I couldn't find them when they were there, I just couldn't see them. Moral of the story, don't treat men like idiots, just be practicle, like showing them the packaging of the goods you want from the store, when you send them shopping, or telling them this is the stuff I like (the suggestion posted 19 Dec, by Anon was bang on the mark). I feel sorry for presentless, but men are that naive/head in the clouds, that they would take a nothing seriously. All the best ladies, blatancy is the BEST policy Reply

Anonymous December 19, 2007

present hints Men don't take hints. No matter how obvious. "I like those earrings. You know, my birthday is coming up...." will get you (if you are lucky) the bracelet next to them. Men just aren't capable of taking hints.

The stores are catching on to this. They had you register for wedding gifts or baby showers. Now many stores let you create a "wish list" that can be e-mailed. You specify size, color, and any other needed details. Jewelry stores also have a "hint" button. This sends an e-mail "hint" to the person you choose. Takes out all of the challenges. No more wondering which store to go to, what size to get, what your favorite color is, etc.

I'm trying the "wish list" this year. We'll see if it works.

Good luck. Reply

Anonymous December 5, 2007

the only time i have gotten gifts from my husband is when i have threatened penalty of death. Nothing for 10year anniversary- nothing for 1st mother's day etc. This year, i handed him a circular and asked him since he was going to the store anyway to pick me up something in it. He came back with not only what i asked for- but three other things.!! I have yet to receive flowers! Really- SUBTLE doesn't work- you ask for "nothing"- he gave you exactly what you asked for- You should appreciate that he got it righht! Reply

Rivkah Chattanooga, TN November 3, 2007

Insensitive!!! I do agree that one should speak clearly. However, how could anyone be so insensitive as to think that he should not have given her something for her birthday. I can't believe that you all are blaming the woman for the entire situation because she was too subtle. How can you be so mean. Reply

KL Poulsbo, WA September 7, 2007

Presentless and Comments Such an excellent response and comments. I wish I had read this advice before I was married as the clueless bride I was -- clueless and consequently too subtle for words! My ignorance and presumptions created my own heartache on occasions such as the wife here describes. It led to headaches for my poor husband. I've lived and learned, and finally realized that love doesn't equal clairvoyance, but it took longer than it needed to. Reply

Esther Brooklyn, NY April 17, 2007

Say What You Mean I highly agree with Say What You Mean's comment above.

I think you should print it out and read it whenever you are feeling low.

You have the nicest, most respectful husband. He took your feelings into consideration, did what you asked for, and your hurt, is not due to his actions, but due to your romantic wishes of his surprising you, though you said 'nothing'.

You're ok. Just young and still learning the art of communication.

You have lots of love and respect waiting for you in this marriage, just take it one step at a time, and let it blossom.

And hey - be loving to yourself too, by saying what you truly want, without feeling bad for it. You have the right, after all, he asked. Truly considerate of him. Some women would be upset with a surprise. Remember that. Reply

Anonymous Buffalo Grove, IL February 5, 2007

You SAID it. I cannot comment on the state of your marriage, there is noting near enough information to make ANY such statement. If anything, as a man, I would say that it must be good, because YOU SAID it was.

However, as a man who has been married for 38 years I must agree that we (men) take words literally and hints go right past us.

My daughter was recently married and before hand my son-in-law asked for my blessing. I discussed many things with him at that time regarding religious and personal issues; but one thing I will share is that it is a hugh mistake to be subtle in one's conversations and actions.

I urged him to speak clearly, and I gave my daughter the same advice. If it's important don't lay it between the lines, speak clearly.


Anonymous Crown Heights, NY February 4, 2007

Good Article, Good Advice I am a man similar to the one in the article, and I think the advice given here is golden. I love my wife dearly, but if I don't know what she wants, I sometimes miss the boat and do something else or not at all. Women, it is VERY IMPORTANT to always communicate your desires, your wants, and your needs to your husbands or else they may never know how you really feel about those topics. Reply

Anonymous Brisbane, Australia February 2, 2007

Say what you mean I have been married for 30 years. During that time I have often told my husband to buy me nothing for my birthday. All I want is a warm embrace and his wish that my day is filled with love and joy. What more could anyone want than to know that they are loved and appreciated. Money might buy you a nice piece of jewlery but you can't put a value on love and true happiness in a marriage. I think your husband showed you a great deal of respect by not buying you a gift and more love by complying with your wishes. In future you should let say what you mean and mean what you say. Reply

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